L.A. Blackout

Brentin Mock, Southern Poverty Law Center Intelligence Report, Winter 2007

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[Anthony] Prudhomme was murdered because he identified himself as black (he was in fact mixed-race) in a neighborhood occupied by one of the many Latino street gangs in Los Angeles County. Incredibly, even though these gangs are fundamentally criminal enterprises interested mainly in money, gang experts inside and outside the government say that they are now engaged in a campaign of “ethnic cleansing”—racial terror that is directed solely at African Americans.

“The way I hear these knuckleheads tell it, they don’t want their neighborhoods infested with blacks, as if it’s an infestation,” says respected Los Angeles gang expert Tony Rafael, who interviewed several Latino street gang leaders for an upcoming book on the Mexican Mafia, the dominant Latino gang in Southern California. “It’s pure racial animosity that manifests itself in a policy of a major criminal organization.”

“There’s absolutely no motive absent the color of their skin,” adds former Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney Michael Camacho. Before he became a judge, in 2003, Camacho successfully prosecuted a Latino gang member for the random shootings of three black men in Pomona, Calif.

“They generally don’t like African Americans,” Pomona gang unit officer Marcus Perez testified in that case. “If an African American enters their neighborhood, they’re likely to be injured or killed.”

A comprehensive study of hate crimes in Los Angeles County released by the University of Hawaii in 2000 concluded that while the vast majority of hate crimes nationwide are not committed by members of organized groups, Los Angeles County is a different story. Researchers found that in areas with high concentrations, or “clusters,” of hate crimes, the perpetrators were typically members of Latino street gangs who were purposely targeting blacks.

Furthermore, the study found, “There is strong evidence of race-bias hate crimes among gangs in which the major motive is not the defense of territorial boundaries against other gangs, but hatred toward a group defined by racial identification, regardless of any gang-related territorial threat.”

Six years later, the racist terror campaign continues.

A Pervasive Attitude

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According to gang experts and law enforcement agents, a longstanding race war between the Mexican Mafia and the Black Guerilla family, a rival African-American prison gang, has generated such intense racial hatred among Mexican Mafia leaders, or shot callers, that they have issued a “green light” on all blacks. A sort of gang-life fatwah, this amounts to a standing authorization for Latino gang members to prove their mettle by terrorizing or even murdering any blacks sighted in a neighborhood claimed by a gang loyal to the Mexican Mafia.

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Last fall, four members of the Avenues were convicted of federal charges for conspiring to deprive blacks of their civil rights in Highland Park. Three of them were sentenced to life in prison, without the possibility of parole, in late November; a fourth was to be sentenced the following month.

But the problem is far more widespread than a single gang in a single neighborhood.

Random, racially motivated crimes have been committed across the 88 cities of Los Angeles County by the members of Latino gangs, including the Pomona 12 in the city of Pomona, the 18th Street Gang in southwest Los Angeles, the Toonerville gang in northeast L.A., and the Varrio Tortilla Flats in Compton.

In one typical case, three members of the Pomona 12 attacked an African-American teenager, Kareem Williams, in his front yard in 2002. When his uncle, Roy Williams, ran to help his nephew, gang member Richard Diaz told him, “Niggers have no business living in Pomona because this is 12th Street territory.” According to witnesses, Diaz then told the other gang members, “Pull out the gun! Shoot the niggers! Shoot the niggers!” No shots were fired.

The violence is not even limited to Los Angeles County. This November, six members of a Latino gang in Carlsbad, Calif., were arrested and charged with hate crimes for allegedly hurling racial slurs at a black teenager—who police said was not a gang member—while kicking and punching him. The same month, two members of the Fresno Bulldogs, a Latino gang in Fresno, Calif., were convicted of attempted murder in what police described as the random hate-crime shooting of a 41-year-old black man. According to police, the shooters used racial epithets and told the victim, “We don’t like your kind of people on our street.”

Anti-black violence conducted by Latino gangs in Los Angeles has been ongoing for more than a decade. A 1995 Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) report about Latino gang activity in the Normandale Park neighborhood declared, “This gang has been involved in an ongoing program to eradicate Black citizens from the gang neighborhood.” A 1996 LAPD report on gangs in east Los Angeles stated, “Local gangs will attack any Black person that comes into the city.”

But while the Latino gangs’ racial terror campaign is not new, gang experts and law enforcement authorities say the intensity and frequency of anti-black terrorism is now escalating, as the amount of turf in Los Angeles claimed by Latino gangs continues to increase rapidly. And, as more and more blacks leave inner-city L.A. for safer neighborhoods, those who remain are more vulnerable.

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Since 1990, the African-American population of Los Angeles has dropped by half as blacks relocated to suburbs, and Latinos have moved into historically black neighborhoods. Traversing South Central L.A. today, it’s obvious that the urban landscape has changed radically since the Bloods-versus-Crips era depicted in movies like Colors, Boyz N The Hood, and Menace II Society. Not only are there vastly fewer black people walking the streets, there are vastly fewer obvious black gang members. Beige skin and baggy khakis have displaced the red and blue bandannas of the Bloods and the Crips.

The LAPD estimates there are now 22,000 Latino gang members in the city of Los Angeles alone. That’s not only more than all the Crips and the Bloods; it’s more than all black, Asian, and white gang members combined. Almost all of those Latino gang members in L.A.—let alone those in other California cities—are loyal to the Mexican Mafia. Most have been thoroughly indoctrinated with the Mexican Mafia’s violent racism during stints in prison, where most gangs are racially based.

“When I first started working the gangs, they would be mixed. You could be black and Latino and be in the same gang,” says Lewis, the LAPD probation officer. “But when they went to prison, they had to be Latino instead of from the gang, so their enemies became African Americans.”

A Landmark Case

In Highland Park, located just north of downtown and one of oldest settled areas in Los Angeles, there have been at least three racially motivated “green light” murders committed by members of the Avenues since 1999.

Besides Anthony Prudhomme, the victims included Christopher Bowser, a black man who was bullied and sporadically assaulted for years by Avenues members, then gunned down in broad daylight at a bus stop, and Kenneth Kurry Wilson, who didn’t even live in the vicinity. Wilson was simply parking his car to drop off his nephew after a late night at a bar when he crossed paths with Avenues gang members riding in a stolen van. According to later court testimony, one of the gang members in the van spotted Wilson and said, “Hey, wanna kill a nigger?” The group opened fire on Wilson, killing him instantly.

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Prosecutors brought the federal hate-crimes case against the Avenues to send all Latino gangs in Los Angeles County a message that ethnic cleaning will not be tolerated. (Federal prison time is a greater threat to gang leaders than California state prison time, both because there is no parole in the federal system and because the federal government routinely transfers gang leaders to penitentiaries far from home, where they are cut off from the support and protection of their gang.)

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The government’s message may have been received, but it’s not being obeyed. Shortly after the federal hate crimes trial ended this fall, Avenues member James “Drifter” Campbell, 47, was charged with criminal threats for pointing a gun at a 17-year-old African-American high school student in Highland Park, the second such incident that month.

Mrozek said there are currently no plans to bring more federal hate crimes charges against other Latino gang members, though he acknowledges that similar crimes “are probably still going on.”

Lawless Avenues

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Highland Park has long had a reputation for gang problems that community boosters argue is undeserved. Their cause wasn’t helped in 1986, when one of Highland Park’s most famous residents, songwriter Jackson Browne, released the song, “Lawless Avenues,” about the neighborhood’s multi-generational gang: “Fathers’ and sons’ lives repeat/And something there turns them/Down those lawless avenues.”

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Still, at least some of the relatively few black Highland Park residents who’ve lived in the area for more than a decade don’t report the same level of fear as others. “We love our neighbors. We love living in Highland Park,” says Vernita Strange, who moved to Highland Park with her husband Al in the mid-1970s. “We’ve been treated warmly. We’ve been here 30 years, and that’s all I have to say.”

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Murderous Prejudice

Until Anthony Prudhomme’s murderers went on trial, it never dawned on his mother, Louisa, and his stepfather Lavalle, that the killing was racially motivated. “It wasn’t until we went to the trial that we really began to understand that [race] was the reason,” he says, “which seemed totally, for lack of a better word, stupid.”

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But with the Mexican Mafia’s shadow looming over Los Angeles, it may be a long time before the rapidly growing number of streets claimed by Latino gangs are safe for blacks, if ever.

“It’s not just Highland Park. It’s almost anywhere in L.A. that you could find yourself in a difficult position [as a black person],” says Lewis, the LAPD probation officer. “All blacks are on green light no matter where.”

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